The World Economic Forum at Davos has opened a YouTube debate, inviting everyone to submit videos – and promising one YouTuber a free trip to the meeting in Switzerland in January. Go discuss the issues that machers will be discussing and make videos for them here.
It’s ridiculous to think that in four days I could get a true sense of a nation or region I’ve never been to before. I think I could spend 40 years in this desert and not figure it out.
I’ve never seen a clearer case of there being no there there than here. When you come to Dubai, you can’t help looking for the real Dubai. That’s because everything around you is extravagantly made up.
I stayed in the opulent Jumeirah resort complex that is so lavishly designed that one wag said even the sea looked fictional. Out of my balcony, I stared at the fabled Burj Al Arab hotel, which looks like a sail on the ocean and is boldly beautiful on the outside.
But on the inside, I expected to see the Little Mermaid hopping out of the fountain.
Lore has it that when the hotel opened its design was minimalist, but when the ruling sheikh saw it, he asked when it would be finished. Out came Disney shades of pink and blue by the barrel and enough gold leaf to rescue Iceland’s economy.
With a newfound friend from the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils – the reason we were here – I went up to the bar atop the Burg and we passed on what was proudly advertised as the world’s most expensive drink as we gaped at the next world’s tallest skyscraper, an incredibly huge glass stalactite, and at the palm islands being built and built upon on the water.
Dubai has two skylines (this is just one of them) and they are dotted – no, filled – with cranes building them bigger and higher.
In an effort to show us the real Arabia, the government of Dubai (which paid for the conference as well as my travel and that of many or most participants) and a local developer bussed us with police escort an hour out into the desert past vast stretches of nothingness – I have seen the middle of nowhere – with gargantuan construction sites running in full gear in the cooler night.
We arrived, almost randomly, at the ruins of a fort (I wonder what it was defending) laid out with carpets and catering and camels (who were not happy) and young boys twirling guns (“al Qaeda in training,” one Brit wagged). We still had not arrived at the real Dubai.
The day before, looking for Dubai, I’d made the mistake of going to the Mall of the Emirates with its hundreds of stores and infamous indoor ski slope, just because it was so over the top. But I came away depressed because it was only an extreme extension of the malling of the world that I lament (and wonder whether whether eBay and Etsy can cure) in my book. All our stuff is now the same.
I suppose we should be flattered and relieved that a nation – especially an Arab nation, no? – chose to copy so much of America. But why did they chose as their inspiration Vegas (sans sins), malls, grossly conspicuous consumption, and Hollywood pap? I wasn’t sure whether I was sadder for them or us.
So I went looking for old Dubai downtown. But before I went there, a local told me that what I was more likely to see was old Bombay. True, but I did feel better riding the boats across the canal and shopping in the souks.
Ethan Zuckerman, who was on our World Economic Forum team and who I’d want to travel the world with, passive aggressively steered us all into a “pure vegetarian” restaurant called the Evergreen and expertly ordered up a feast for six that cost 25 percent less than a drink at the Burg. And we had a very nice chat with the Indian owner.
The essence of Dubai, it turns out, is that it’s not Dubai at all. In the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is a part, 85 percent of the residents and workers are foreigners – from construction workers to hotel staff who washed the stone outside every morning as I jogged past (labor is that cheap here) to young journalists to bankers – who will never have the rights of citizenship. The vast majority of the population does not speak Arabic. There are a half-dozen thriving newspapers in English (odd sight these days); that is the lingua franca. So the economy is imported.
Having said all that, Dubai is an amazing accomplishment of its monarch, who is always but always referred to in the newspapers as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. One day, a page-one, over-the-fold story said the Sheikh had been honored by a foreign leader for being good to horses. It reminded me of reading about the DDR’s leader in East Berlin’s papers in 1981. The Sheikh’s photo, always looking stern, adorns most shops in the old city (you can buy lots of sheikh schwag there: sports medals, paper crowns and hats, wrist bands, and even paper eyeglasses with his picture).
With my fellow members of the internet Global Agenda Council, I got to meet the Sheikh in a private audience. The greatest moment of the meeting and the entire trip: Dave Sifry greeting the sheikh: “Hi, Your Highness.” His posse cracked a grin. We tried hard not to.
Ethan Zuckerman eloquently and respectfully raised the issue of Dubai’s censorship online. When you try to go to any of many sites here, you get a page with a link that lists in cold clarity the forbidden zones: sex, crime, terrorism, and certain top-level domains (one of which happens to be from the land that doesn’t exist here, .il). As he will in an essay he wrote coming out of the WEF (which I’ll link to shortly), Ethan talked about the feedback loop the internet provides and how it loses value and returns false results when it is restricted.
I asked the Sheikh about the free-zone Media City and Internet City he built to attract those industries and the university adjuncts they are creating in the UAE with many American and European institutions. One of his aides explained that in 1971, when the government was formed, Dubai had one high school, no university, and only 45 university graduates. Today it is educating 90-odd percent even of its women in college.
Dubai has built a huge economy and it is still building feverishly. At the summit, a frequent topic of conversation was Dubai’s fate in the credit crisis as construction of gigantic complexes stretch as far as the eye can see across the flat sands. At the closing of the meetings, our cohost, the head of a giant construction company and member of the ruling government, told the group with a charming smile that Dubai’s just fine and has seven quarters of run room on serving the debt. More than one media executive said afterward that somebody should have stopped him from protesting too much. The next day, the headline in the paper was about panic selling of real-estate stocks here.
I spoke with media people who live here and love or like it. One is an executive who left Paris and finds business here faster and freer. Another is a young reporter who, apart from “extortionate rents” (but in a complex with a pool she wouldn’t get elsewhere), is getting great experience (I see an opportunity for my journalism students). Another is an old hand who speaks Arabic and has been here for 15 years and wouldn’t leave.
In an email, friend Fred Wilson – who went trolling for new companies in Slovenia this summer – asked about the place. The reason to consider Dubai, I think, would be as an offshore base to start a company. There are obvious tax advantages. For a certain sort of person, the lifestyle could be desirable: lots of shopping, Lord knows; plenty of American food (Fridays and food courts!); a great tax situation; no winter; and a beach that looks as if it, too, were imported.
Dubai is either an act of fiction or of the future. I arrived thinking the former; I leave wondering whether it could be the latter. In a sense, what we see here is a real-life model of the virtual world we are creating online, crossing borders and cultures and linking in whatever’s needed to make money: capital, cheaper labor, imported expertise and education, infrastructure. Except online, we are all citizens of the internet.
I’ll probably go back next year for the next WEF GAC summit and I’m sure I’ll still be looking for the real Dubai, getting in a car to find a real town and a real souk, finding someone who can explain the place to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever find it.
[Disclosure: To repeat, the Dubai government paid for the summit, for my travel, and for that of many or most participants as its sole sponsor.]
I’m at the final plenary session at the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils meeting in Dubai. In the last two WEF events I’ve attended, I’ve heard rumblings that were predictive of crises and trends to come; that’s what happen when you bring together the world’s machers and thinkers, as happens in Davos. Two years ago, the rumble I heard was about rising food prices. One year ago, it was about the need for global financial regulation.
Now some may say — as someone from OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) did here — that WEF, or its members, have been more a part of the problem than the solution. I don’t know about that. At least we can say that WEF has not been equipped to act quickly enough to forestall those crisis in food and credit. So it seems that this meeting is an attempt to respond to that, to set agendas more than spot them.
Today’s meeting began, of course, with a report from a cluster of councils on finance. Suzanne Nora Johnson of Carnegie issued a strong statement.
“The outlook for the global economy is the worst that many of us have seen in our lives,” she said. “There is no country, there is no industry that will be completely immune…. The current crisis is rooted in global macroeconomic imbalances. We are in this together.” This, she said, was “a problem of risk management. No one did a good job.” There was excessive risk taking and leverage. In that, she included not only the industry and governments but media and households. “It has undermined the perceived advantage of open capital markets and at the extreme has even questioned the value of capitalism today.”
The groups endorsed two short-term responses: First, “everyone who is engaged in this crisis has to have a seat at the table. There has to be a global, coordinated response both in crisis management and in the ongoing regulation of our markets.” Second, “the intense government responses to date must continue… with much better communications and transparency of government objectives.”
More the intermediate and long terms, the groups proposed:
* “Building the capacity and capability of our regulatory authorities both in national and international forums.”
* Many government improvements in the private sector need to continue.”
* Greater linkages between macroeconomic policies and regulators.”
* “Transparency of information is not enough. There needs to be more synthesis and analysis in the aggregate.” (And, no, I don’t know what that means.)
* “The rules of engagement of government in private sector need to be defined.” There is a
* “Continued investment in the private sector … in the emerging markets./”
* “The underserved need to be engaged.” Though there is a need for government intervention, she said,
Some other themes from other groups:
* Networks. We are not only more connected through the economy, environment, and security but we now have the means to connect — the internet — to create and innovate and make decisions. Telephony is be a bridge to greater connectedness as it links with the internet. By the end of 2010, Paul Twomey of ICANN pointed out, 5 billion people will have mobile phones and more and more they will have internet access. The global governance group called for a Marshall Plan to bridge the digital divide.
* The need for global governance (not global government, they were careful to point out). The governance group argued that world trade works because of global governance but finance is broken because it does not. They said that this will require some relinquishment of sovereignty.
* Capitalism isn’t broken “It would be sheer folly to allow our faith in the system to be shaken by the financial crisis,” said the economic development group. That was a majority opinion, I’d say, though not unanimous, as one comment from the floor revealed.
* Mobility. The governance group said that problems cross borders without passports but we expect solutions to move with passports. The economic development group urged a “global system of global migration” but admitted that with unemployment soaring, it’s not the time to push this; they suggested instead working it out quietly (that’s not very transparent).
* Changing demographics. The economic development group said that with life expectancy extended by two decades and with a huge growth of the older demographic, retirement laws should be changed. That, too, they suggested is not best taken on while employment is rising.
* The environment and sustainability group — which called for “a fundamental reboot” in 2009 — said that the crisis in fuel, finance, and food were “just canaries in the coal mine. They are early warning signs that the system is not sustainable.” Of course, environment was on many tongues, but I didn’t hear much new about the agenda except continued efforts to communicate urgency.
* Involving more stakeholders as also on many minds with more calls for including more people. That is a permanent challenge for WEF.
* Freedom of speech. Too little was said about that except whispers about taking on the topic in a nation that does not value and protect speech. At least someone from the entertainment group — yes, frivolous entertainment — said that freedom of speech is essential so people will be able to tell their stories and understand each other better. Amen. I wish that had come as a strong statement from the internet and media groups as well. Show biz shamed us.
* The group on society and values said it in their way, reminding the group of “the moral imperative to develop the promise of every human being.” That, of course, also touches on poverty discrimination, and education.
* The power of data and information is implicit in calls for transparency but the potential is greater than that, requiring systems to gain value from data. The health group talked about that and how “data is a public good and should be in the public domain.”
* Moving beyond data and information — which is where too many think the value of the internet stops — Don Tapscott made a good appeal for baking openness and involvement into finance (why not open-source risk management algorithms?) and government (the internet enables a national brainstorming).
* An unspoken theme I saw through the three days here was control: those who had it losing it and not knowing what to do, not understanding that — according to Jarvis’ First Law — today, when you give up control, you win. That, to me, is the fundamental change occurring here. I am in the midst of those who control and they must learn, according to David Weinberger’s Corolary, that there is an inverse relationship between control and trust.
* Crises are an opportunity for change.
Some people in the room, me among them, thought we are devoting, though understandably, too much attention to fear, risk, failure, regulation, and control. Some believe — in the end, most, I hope — that innovation and creation and invention are the real cures and the real means for growth and I hope we concentrate on them. WEF head Klaus Schwab does address the theme in his closing: “entrepreneurship in the global public interest.”
There’s more, of course. Now we’re getting to the point of people standing up to say we’ve forgotten their issue. That could go on forever.
I’ll write later about my own group on the future of the internet and about impressions of Dubai.
I’m in the Emirates lounge getting ready to fly to Dubai for a World Economic Forum (Davos) meeting of the Global Agenda Councils. I’m on the one devoted to the future of the internet, which is humbling. (Full disclosure: The travel expenses are paid by the airline and the government of Dubai.) I’ll report from there as wifi allows.